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Tuesday, April 1, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Many Iraqis see war as their only escape route

Scared citizens in capital want war


The older man sitting beside me at a simple meal to welcome peace activists to Baghdad sounded me out cautiously.

Finally, emboldened by the freedom to talk in the midst of the mingling crowd, he spoke: "There is something you should know -- we didn't want to be here tonight. When the priest asked us to gather for a peace service, we said we didn't want to come."

"Why?" I asked.

"We didn't want to come because we don't want peace. We want the war to come."

Beginning that night, I watched peace activists and human shields mingle with ordinary Iraqis, and followed developments around the globe as the drum beat to war steadily drowned out the cries for peace.

As I met with more Iraqis, my own fervent antiwar convictions were being tested against the desires of those for whom war means the most -- the Iraqis themselves -- and were found sorely wanting.

All foreigners in Iraq are subject to 24-hour surveillance by government "minders," who arrange interviews, visits and contact with ordinary Iraqis.

Through some fluke, either by my invitation as a religious person and or through my family connections, I was spared the attention of a minder, and given the freedom to meet and talk relatively freely with Baghdad Iraqis.

I spoke to dozens of people from across the Iraqi religious and social spectrum, each one terrified to speak out. Over and over again I was told: "We would be killed for speaking like this."

All would speak only in a private home or where they were absolutely sure, through the introduction of another Iraqi, that I was not being attended by a minder.

From a former member of the army to a person working with the police, from taxi drivers to store owners, from mothers to government officials, without exception, when allowed to speak freely, the message was the same -- please bring on the war. We are ready. We have suffered long enough. We may lose our lives but some of us will survive and, for our children's sake, please end our misery.

"Life is hell. We have no hope. But everything will be OK once the war is over," one Iraqi told me.

But the bizarre desire for a war they believe will rid them of hopelessness still remained difficult to understand.

"Look at it this way, " he explained. "No matter how bad it is, we will not all die. We have hoped for some other way but nothing has worked. Twelve years ago it went almost all the way but failed. We cannot wait anymore. We want the war."

Reports to friends and family in Iraq on the progress in talks at the United Nations in the run up to the war were welcomed not with joy but anger.

"No, there is no other way," they told me. " Only then will Saddam get out of our lives."

Once again, going back to my Japanese roots, things began to make more sense.

I remembered the stories I had heard from older Japanese of how, in a strange way, they had welcomed the sight of the American bombers in the skies over Japan.

The first sight of the American B29 bombers signaled to them that the war was coming to an end. There would be terrible destruction. They might very well die, but finally, in a tragic way, there was finally hope.

I began to talk to some of "human shields" gathered in Baghdad.

"Have you asked the people here what they want? Have you talked to regular people, away from your minder, and asked them if they want you here?"

The response was chastening. "We don't need to," said one. "We know what they want."

Did they? As a committed pacifist, I had argued on TV, radio and in newspapers against the U.S. drive toward war, and have pounded the streets with fellow antiwar activists. Now I was not so sure.

Maybe those Iraqis I spoke to were overestimating how easily the invading coalition could capture their country and overthrow its leaders. They were prepared for a loss of life, perhaps their own, but will they accept the extra deaths that result from the U.S.-led coalition's poor planning and errors? How firm is their desire for war now that the fighting is dragging on longer than expected, threatening to trigger a humanitarian crisis of months not days?

What I saw of their lives made it clear to me that they've been driven to the brink of insanity and many of them have toppled over the edge, raising questions about their judgment and how much it would take for their allegiance to change. Iraqis have no love, or liking, for the British or the Americans.

Yet the meetings, visits and overnight stays did make one thing abundantly clear -- common, regular Iraqis are in a living nightmare.

From the terror that would come across their faces when an unknown visitor appeared, when the telephone would ring, when there was a knock on the door, I saw starkly the horrible conditions under which they exist.

But over and over again, I questioned them: "Why could you want war? Why could any human being desire war?" Were their lives not miserable enough as it was?

Their answers were quiet, measured -- and uniform.

"Look at our lives. We are living like animals. No food and no hope."

Then there is Hussein.

With his hand outstretched. Saddam Hussein firing his rifle. Saddam Hussein in his Arab head dress. Saddam Hussein in the standard, classic 30-year-old portrait.

One or more of these four pictures seemed to be everywhere -- on walls, in the middle of the road, in homes, as statues, on the money -- the man was everywhere: all-seeing, all-knowing, all-consuming.

Those Iraqis I spoke to in Baghdad, veterans of many a campaign waged by and against their country, and in whose homes I had seen the pictures of family members killed in wartime, were adamant.

"We are not afraid of the American bombing. What we are afraid of is Saddam Hussein and what he and the Ba'ath Party will do when the war begins. But even then we want the war," a Baghdad store owner told me.

"It is the only way to escape our hell."



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